The secret of Martin Luther’s counseling ministry

Luther Statue

Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther, the accidental revolutionary. The man who, by posting his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, found himself at the center of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. But fewer of us are familiar with Martin Luther, the pastor. The man who, through dinner conversations and letters, helped encourage struggling believers with the gospel and nurtured the faith of many. I had the opportunity to explore this side of Luther in my review of Bob Kellemen’s newest book, Counseling Under the Cross for The Gospel Coalition:

Theologically and methodologically, the gospel was everything in Luther’s counseling ministry. According to Kellemen:

“Luther turned the counseling of his day back to the Christ of the cross. Satan insists that we cannot trust God’s heart. The Christ of the cross is the one image, the one reality, the one truth that conquers the condemning lie of Satan.” (40)

Whether comforting the suffering (the work of sustaining and healing) or confronting the sinner (the work of reconciling and guiding), Luther sought to apply the gospel to the hearts of those in his care because the gospel was, and is, their only hope.

And hope really is the operative word here. The suffering need to know that it’s normal to hurt, but that in and through Christ it’s possible to hope. Christ defeats the lie that whispers “Life is bad; God is sovereign; God must be bad, too” (82), because in the gospel we have a Father who dearly loves us. Likewise, hope presents us with our soul’s fundamental need:

“Gospel counsel helps people to grasp together with all the saints a personal knowledge of Christ as merciful Friend. This is the most basic knowledge that the soul needs–the knowledge that the soul can trust Christ as best Friend.”(159)

Whether we’re vocational counselors or laypeople doing the work of encouraging (1 Thess. 5:11), all of us should strive for this kind of emphasis. We’re living in a time when it’s shockingly easy to feel hopeless, regardless of whether we’re followers of Christ.

How do you counsel the Christian struggling with anxiety over tomorrow if not by slowly helping her see the goodness of God in Christ? How do you guide the sinner weary from the pursuit of sin if not by pointing him to the One who satisfies his greatest needs?

Without gospel hope, the best we can offer is a to-do list: follow these seven steps, try a little harder, and drop a line after you’ve pulled yourself up by your bootstraps.

Without hope, our advice only feeds the cycle of despair. But Kellemen reminds us that because we have the greatest hope, we really do have something better.

Keep reading at The Gospel Coalition.

The good news in an introduction

Luther Statue

When I was younger, I had times when I was tempted to skip over parts of Paul’s letters. Not the meaty parts in the middle, mind you. The “real” content of course. Just the introductions. You know, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, grace and peace to you
” and all that.

I don’t find myself tempted to do that anymore, which is probably a good thing. When you sit with them, there’s sometimes a lot more there than you realize. Yes, they’re introductions. Yes, they are greetings. But they’re also good news, especially as Paul would offer “grace and peace” as he did in Galatians 1:3, “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In this line alone, there an incredibly powerful truth being told: that Jesus himself is God. I love how Martin Luther teased this out in his commentary on Galatians:

Christ does not give grace and peace, as the apostle gave it to people, by preaching the Gospel. He gives it as the author and Creator. The Father creates and gives life, grace, peace, and all other good things. The very same things also the Son creates and gives. To give grace, peace, and everlasting life, to forgive sins, to make righteous, to give life, to deliver from death and the devil—these are not the works of any creature, but of God alone. The angels can neither create nor give these things; therefore, those works belong only to the glory of the sovereign Majesty, the Maker of all things. Since Paul attributes the very same power of creating and giving all these things to Christ equally with the Father, it must follow that Christ is truly God.

This was exactly what I needed to read on a Saturday night when we’re settling in from a couple days on the road and the cares of the world continue to attempt to rob us of our joy. The grace and peace that come from Christ are his; he is their Author, and no one and nothing can snatch those away from us.

Our anxiety cannot overcome Christ

Luther Statue

For the last couple of weeks, Emily and I have been working through an issue that has been causing a tremendous amount of anxiety in our home (which is made more difficult by the fact that I’m off traveling at the time of this writing). Since the issue came to our attention, we’ve been working to get it resolved. We’ve done all we can, and now it’s in the government’s hands. All we can do now is wait, and pray.

This kind of anxiety is what we’ve been living with on and off for about two years, but never to this degree. It’s what we’re probably going to be dealing with for the next two years or more as we consider our options for our future here in America. At times, it can be crippling. It creates a constant sense of fear, of dread, even despair. It is exactly the kind of thing that we don’t want or need, because it keeps our minds off of what’s most important. It makes it hard to see all Christ has done for us.

While doing a bit of reading on Saturday night, I found this quote from Martin Luther particularly helpful. He said,

Christ’s victory 
 is the overcoming of the law, of sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell and all evils; and this his victory he has given to us. Although, then, these tyrants and these enemies of ours accuse us and make us afraid, yet they cannot drive us to despair, nor condemn us; for Christ, whom God the Father has raised up from the dead, is our righteousness and victory.

This is a simple truth that I need to be reminded of. One that, when I’m experiencing fear and anxiety, I’m tempted to forget. Whatever comes to accuse us and make us afraid cannot supplant that. And no source of anxiety—no government, no amount of paperwork, no nothing—can ever overcome Him. He has defeated everything that exists to condemn us. He is our victory.

What should happen when you read Scripture

Bible zoomed in on Romans

One of my favorite stories about Martin Luther is that of his “Tower Experience”. He studied the Scriptures diligently, seeking to understand them, even as he found he grew to hate the God about whom they testified.

Romans 1:17 was the verse that troubled him so. “For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.”

Luther’s hatred of God

“Previously,” wrote Steven Lawson,  “Luther had understood the righteousness of God mentioned in this verse to mean His active, avenging justice that punishes sinners. He admitted that he hated the righteousness of God, according to this understanding.”[1. Steven Lawson, The Heroic Boldness Of Martin Luther.] Luther himself wrote that,

I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience.

Luther’s changed heart

But after much turmoil, of searching the Scriptures and pursuing his salvation through his own means, in an instant, Luther was overcome. He began to see the words of Romans 1:17 clearly for the first time. And the gospel began to burn brightly in his heart:

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words
 There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.

What we should expect as we read and study

This is what we should expect to see happen in our own lives as we diligently study the Scriptures. Not that we should always have an ecstatic, born-again experience, of course. But we should always be changed by what we read. “For the word of God is living and effective,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow” (4:12).

If the Word is living and active, it’s going to change us. If it penetrates to the soul, we’re going to be different. That change might take an instant, or it might take decades. But regardless of how long it takes, we will be changed. You can always count on that.

6 quotes Christians need to let lie fallow

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

We Christians do love our quotes—and there are so many brilliant ones to choose from! But by golly, we sure do seem to be a repetitive bunch. Far too often, we’re using the same quotes, over and over.

And over.

So yesterday, inspired by a friend’s lament of the increased use of the Samwise “everything sad is coming untrue” quote from Lord of the Rings, I took to the Interwebs to get your feedback, asking what you believe are the most over-used quotes from Christian authors.

Here are the top answers:

1. “We are far too easily pleased
” From C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

2. John Piper’s mission statement. From Desiring God (and pretty much everything else he’s ever written and/or preached since):

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

3. “He is no fool
” From The Journals of Jim Elliot:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

4. “More wicked
 but more loved.” Tim Keller’s gospel summary, from multiple books and sermons:

“We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”

5. C.S. Lewis’ trilemma. From Mere Christianity:

‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

6. The one which Martin Luther never actually said. But the ideas can definitely be gleaned from his work:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

You can see why they’re quoted so often. They’re conceptually brilliant and (in most cases) captivating in their simplicity. But there are two dangers with quoting these so frequently:

We risk cheapening their meaning. And when that happens, powerful truths become pithy sentiments. 

That’s the first danger. The second is it reveals we may not be diversifying our reading in a healthy fashion. When we all read the same books, by the same people, quoting the same things, we risk creating a homogeneous intellectualism. And when this happens, we risk losing our ability to think critically, as well as the joy of discovering ideas that come from outside our normal spheres of influence.

Luther and the Reformation: Free today from Ligonier Ministries

To celebrate Reformation Day, Ligonier Ministries is offering an audio-video download of R.C. Sproul’s 10-part teaching series, Luther and the Reformation, free.

Centuries after his death, Martin Luther is celebrated as an intellectual giant, a brave opponent of corruption, a shaper of culture, indeed, as one of the most significant figures in Western history. Many people, however, are unaware of the events of Luther’s life that led him to make a courageous stand for the gospel in the sixteenth century. In this series, R.C. Sproul provides a thorough introduction to the life and thought of Martin Luther. With an eye to the lessons we can learn today, Dr. Sproul traces the major events of Luther’s life and explores the gospel recovered by Luther and the other Protestant Reformers.

Here’s a look at part one:

(RSS readers: click through to see the video)

This special offers ends tonight at 11:59 EDT, so act quickly.

A Decisive Act: The 95 Theses


On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian priest, nailed his 95 Theses in opposition to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This was the decisive act of a man convinced by Scripture that it is God alone who forgives our sins—that all the Christian life is one of repentance. This action proved, ultimately,  to be the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.

I am incredibly thankful for Martin Luther—an ill-deserving sinner saved by the grace of God led by the Holy Spirit to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), in light of the truth of Scripture and in spite of enormous opposition.

492 years later, this flawed servant of God’s powerful legacy continues. May we rejoice in the knowledge that “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 3:8).

Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences Commonly Known as The 95 Theses

by Dr. Martin Luther

O-dropcaput of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following heads will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing. Read More about A Decisive Act: The 95 Theses